In September of this year, two countries—about as different from each other as it is possible to be within the European Union—elected “far-Right” parties to be the government and the power behind the government, respectively. I put quote marks around “far-Right” because these parties say that the phrase no longer applies. Are they to be taken at their word?
The new government of Italy is dominated by the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy, the opening words of the country's national anthem), and led by 45-year-old Giorgia Meloni, the party’s main founder and now the country’s first female prime minister. The new government of Sweden, meanwhile, is a right-wing coalition, in which the largest party is the Swedish Democrats led by 43-year-old Jimmie Åkesson. Like the Fratelli, the Swedish Democrats have been outside of government for years and have fascist—specifically, neo-Nazi—roots. In recent years, both these parties have ostentatiously cleansed themselves of members who expressed racist, sexist, or homophobic beliefs. Both have committed themselves to respect the rights of gay and trans people, and to retain the legality of abortion. Should they be taken at their word? We’ll see.
Fascism has been a political impossibility for most of the post-war period in most European countries. The Nazis held power in Germany for a little over a decade (1933–45) while fascists governed Italy for a little more than two (1922–43). Millions perished at the hands of these two totalitarian mass movements. Fascism was Italian by birth, and it greatly influenced German National Socialism, but it was soon eclipsed by the genocidal thoroughness with which the Nazis pursued their dominance and cleansing of the continent. By the end of WWII, however, both movements had been smashed by the armies of the West’s democracies and the Soviet Union. Italy was slowly liberated by Western militaries, aided in the north by partisans who caught and killed Mussolini.
In the countries fortunate enough to remain within the post-war Western orbit—including Italy and most of Germany—previously unimaginable oppression and horror were succeeded by previously unimaginable prosperity. Far-Right and far-Left groups battled and spilled each other’s blood, especially during Italy’s “years of lead” in the 1970s and ’80s. But conditions had changed. The fascist and Nazi parties rose to power amid widespread poverty produced by the depressions of the late 1920s and early ’30s. During the subsequent social collapse, a large part of these populations—especially, but not only, among the middle and upper classes—were terrified by the contagion of Russian bolshevism.
Despite the hardships produced by the pandemic and inflation, no Western democracy is in a comparable state now, or anything approaching it. And much of what has happened since the war created a prophylactic against extremism—the liberal inclinations of Western governments on the Right and Left; the spread of human rights and the growth of hundreds of NGOs, which monitor their observance and much else; the power of a largely free media; the successes of feminism and gay rights; the steady growth of the welfare state and public health services; the expansion of leisure and travel. All of these developments could be swept away; they are only human constructions, after all. But that would require a ferociously powerful reaction.
So, Europe is unlikely to fall into the chaos many of its states experienced before 1939. But it does face terrifying challenges, almost all of which will result in demands for solutions from governments unaccustomed to the scale of the problems they now face. Immigration has roiled the continent for decades, and will only grow unless some way is found to keep migrants in their own war-torn and impoverished homelands. The protocols governing migrants and the rights accorded to them in the countries they strive to reach may yet be crushed between two millstones—the desperation of the migrants themselves and their rejection by the putative hosts.
Most states can barely afford to pay the costs of their own welfare systems, pensions, and public health. Private health providers are signing up large numbers of new clients and poaching medical staff from an already impoverished state sector, widening the chasm between the haves and the have-littles. The war in Ukraine has led to diminished trade, falling supplies of grain to the poorest countries, and rising tension over the possible use of nuclear weaponry. At present, the conflict looks likely to continue into 2023 and beyond, the cost of which will soon move into trillions of euros. The reduction in Russian gas supplies throws Europe and the rest of the world back on greater use of domestic fossil fuels, at the price of a more rapidly warming globe.
A divided European Union will find itself under growing pressure from the New Right governments of Sweden, Italy, Hungary, and Poland to subordinate European law to national law—an existential matter for the Union. A Trump victory in the 2024 US presidential election could see a breakdown of government, at least in some states, and open conflict over the fundamentals of liberal democracy. As I write this, news is emerging of a shooting at an LGBT club in Colorado Springs on the night of November 19th that has left at least five people dead. There have been 600 mass shootings (four or more people killed or injured, not counting the shooter) in the US this year alone according to figures compiled by the Gun Violence Archive.
These and other urgent pressures—the effects of global warming, the recourse to austerity regimes affecting the lowest-paid, the breakdown of law and order, the attempts of the poor and desperate to reach wealthy states—will only grow. And when they do, societies will tend to lose much of the stability they presently enjoy. For the time being, the Left—whether reformist or revolutionary—isn’t seen as an appealing option, so the turn towards an “anti-elitist” New Right offers the most likely receptacle for discontent. Under such circumstances, the authoritarian roots and traditions of these parties might resurface as a framework for a newly militant posture, fighting constitutional government in the name of the dispossessed.
Meloni and Åkesson both lead parties with violent roots. At 15, Meloni joined the youth movement of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), a party created shortly after WWII by people who had been with Mussolini in the northern Republic of Salò until 1945. She found a welcome there, and rose through its ranks. During a 1996 election campaign for the National Alliance (into which the MSI had dissolved itself), she informed a French TV reporter that “Mussolini was a good politician, in that everything he did, he did for Italy.” But during the September campaign—at rallies, in interviews, on TV chat shows—Meloni said again and again that Italy would remain in the European Union and the Eurozone (she had previously called for withdrawal from both), pledged that the law permitting abortions would remain on the statute book, and affirmed that every kind of sexual identity would be protected.
Åkesson joined the Swedish Democrats in 1995, when it still had living connections to neo-Nazi groups active in the post-war period. He has since argued that the party must moderate its policies and expel members who profess fascist and racist ideas. As he climbed the party’s hierarchy to become its leader in 2005, the Swedish Democrats began to present itself as conservative rather than radical—strongly opposed to the mass immigration of the 1990s and determined to tackle the rising criminality of violent migrant gangs in the drug trade. But Åkesson also committed his party to continued EU membership (Sweden is not part of the Eurozone), and to upholding every kind of right introduced by liberal governments. The party dropped its anti-LGBT stances, and began to expel members who refused to toe the new moderate line. As with the other New Right parties, violence in or around the Fratelli d’Italia and the Swedish Democrats has so far been confined to scuffles with opponents at meetings or in the street.
Rejecting parties like these that have sought and obtained a democratic mandate risks radicalising its members and supporters and ceding ground to more extreme groups. The world in which Europeans are currently living is more unstable than at any time since the turbulence of the pre-war years. That instability could provide the conditions for the disintegration of what TS Eliot called the “fragments which I have shored against my ruins”—democratic and accountable government, liberal legislation, extensive welfarism and health systems, protection of minorities, independent and adversarial journalism. There are still many far-Right groups in Europe and North America, some of which continue to espouse fascist and Nazi principles, including violent antisemitism and racial hatred. They usually number a few hundred members at most, and are typically riven with disputes and splits, but it seems risky to underestimate the threat they might pose if more moderate alternatives are deemed illegitimate.
The European New Right includes growing parties like the National Rally in France, Vox in Spain, Alternativ für Deutschland in Germany, the governments of Hungary and Poland, medium-sized parties in smaller states like the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, and Finland, and some of the governments of the former communist states. Many of these countries benefit from the EU’s financial subsidies, but they are also seeing rising hostility to mass immigration (apart from Ukrainian refugees). New Right parties will agree to remain in the Union for now, but they will not shed their ideological Euroscepticism entirely.
In an interview last month, Cas Mudde, a scholar of the New Right, said that there is “a right-wing shift in general. On the one hand, extreme Right, radical Right parties that win more support, but also, mainstream parties that move more towards the positions of these parties.” The post-Brexit dislocations in the UK and the much larger problems that would flow from leaving the euro are keeping countries in a Union they might otherwise be tempted to leave. They need the money and fear a financial collapse if they leave the Eurozone, but in three areas, the New Right will bring pressure to bear on Brussels from within, which may yet turn out to be more painful for the EU than Brexit.
First, there will be the battles over whether national or European law ought to take precedence in the event of a conflict. The New Right are national sovereigntists—they see the nation state as the highest unit of democracy, and argue that it must therefore be strengthened. They are Eurosceptic and oppose globalisation, liberal immigration policies, and the free movement of labour. They spotlight the millions of jobs lost to low-wage countries in recent decades, and the human desolation—the deaths of despair—suffered in once-booming cities and regions. The central importance of work as the source of dignity and a decent wage has disappeared, they say, and been replaced by temporary, low-wage service jobs. They present themselves as the champions of the working and lower middle classes, whose place in society is no longer honoured and whose past living standards can no longer be preserved. They are open to nationalising privatised services and industries and to protectionism. And they want the law to be that of the nation state, not—as is presently the case—the law of the European Union. Both Poland and Hungary have challenged that state of affairs, and the European Court of Justice predictably ruled against them in February. The matter remains unresolved, however, and the new governments of Sweden and Italy will tend to take their side.
Second, in the US and Europe, conspiracist thinking is increasingly popular on the Right, as disenchantment with mainstream ideas leads to the adoption of fringe beliefs. For the liberal centre-Right or centre-Left governments of Europe, racism is an intolerable transgression punishable by shaming, social ostracism, and sometimes even criminal prosecution. Yet belief in the need for ethnic “purity” still exists, even as friendships, romantic relationships, and marriages of different ethnicities increase. Outright Nazism—still adhered to by small but probably growing groups—is rarely voiced, but belief in the truth of “replacement theory” is becoming more common. This unusually strong position was adopted by the political activist Thierry Baudet, whose Forum for Democracy (FvD) achieved rapid growth in 2019 and 2020 in the Netherlands. Baudet insisted that Europe must be “predominately white,” that Muslims should be deported, and that Dutch elites were using mass migration to deliberately dilute (or “replace”) the white population of the Netherlands. Baudet was attracting public support before he overreached and crashed. But his belief in a white Europe has endured, as have similar views found among far-Right groups in the US.
Replacement theory was elaborated by the French writer Renaud Camus in his 2010 book, Le Grand Replacement, in which he argued that governing and media elites were conspiring to replace Europe’s native population. Very quickly, this became a large trope on the New Right, drawing its ostensible plausibility from the exploitation of mass immigration for cheap labour in agriculture and elsewhere. During the 2022 French presidential race, the theory was invoked by Valérie Pécresse, a supposedly “mainstream” candidate for of the centre-right Republican party, who told a rally that “in ten years’ time … will we be a sovereign nation, a US satellite, or a Chinese trading post? Will we be unified or divided? Nothing is written, whether it’s loss of economic status or the Great Replacement.”
Giorgia Meloni invoked this same fear during a speech at a party rally in 2016, before she launched her successful campaign for power in a much more moderate key. “Ethnic substitution,” she announced, “is planned and wished for by the great powers,” in the interests of driving down the cost of labour throughout Europe. In another speech, she said that “proof of ethnic substitution in Italy” was indicated by 100,000 young men and women who had “left our nation to find their fortune abroad … In compensation, in 2015, 153,000 immigrants came ashore in Italy, the large majority African men.” A poll conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Centre in May 2022 found that seven out of 10 Republican voters believe in some version of the replacement theory. The same month, an 18-year-old gunman shot and killed 13 shoppers at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York State, 11 of whom were black. He left a manifesto in which he claimed that whites are being replaced by people of colour. The influence of this paranoid idea is evidently gathering force in practice as well as in theory.
Third, immigration is where public policy and popular resistance most obviously clash, in nearly all European states and in the US. The large waves of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa trying to enter Europe, or Mexicans and other South Americans seeking leave to enter the United States, have become a—and often the—central problem for governments of the receiving states. This problem is likely to worsen given the ongoing effects of the war in Ukraine and the likely effects of global warming on African states. Migration remains a very large part of the rhetoric and activity of the New Right.
During October and November, the steady growth of illegal Channel crossings from France by migrants in small boats and dinghies ignited a vexed debate on immigration in the UK. This has been especially bitter, since Brexit was supposed to give the country greater control over its borders. But while the UK has cut immigration from Europe, it has greatly increased from elsewhere. The political scientist Matthew Goodwin has sought to correct the liberal view that the British public are now insouciant about the topic:
More than half the country think immigration was too high throughout the last decade. More than half of all voters and more than three-quarters of 2019 Tories think the government has been “too soft” on the Channel crossings. More than two-thirds think Britain should “refuse to accept asylum applications from people who have entered the UK illegally and could reasonably have claimed asylum in another safe country.” Nearly seven in ten think it is acceptable to use RAF planes and the Royal Navy to help secure Britain’s borders. Nearly 60% would support the Border Force turning back small boats carrying migrants. And more than half support sending asylum-seekers overseas or to offshore processing centres—a move only 18% oppose.
In the US, illegal immigrants are sometimes attacked; in Poland and Hungary, razor wire surrounds the borders; in Denmark, illegal immigrants are despatched to Rwanda, an example followed by the UK. When the new Home Secretary Suella Braverman referred to the illegal Channel crossings as an “invasion” she was strongly criticised by the liberal media. Nevertheless, Goodwin predicts that the issue will only grow in importance and heat:
There will be new calls to hold a referendum on net migration; instead of a populist party that is wholly focused on the question of Europe there will be a new party that is wholly focused on the question of immigration. The populist virus, in other words, will be back with a vengeance.
The question of law, the rise of conspiratorial anti-elitism, and the issue of immigration all look set to place the European Union under great strain as the New Right grows in popularity. Nevertheless, New Right parties—those in power and those approaching it—believe themselves to be legitimate seekers of democratic mandates, and they are. The elections in Sweden and Italy in September were attended by no acts of violence or threats, but they are likely to make life difficult for immigrants who enter their countries illegally, or commit crimes when they have been accepted for residence. They point to their own popularity, and to the decline of left-wing parties which once claimed to represent the working classes. For the time being, they say they will preserve much of the liberalism of the centre-Left and centre-Right. European politicians of all stripes will face harder tests this winter and into next year. How they will react will determine the character of a new politics.